Got Happiness? If Not, Try What Slough Did

03/16/2015 12:25 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015

In 2005, psychologist Richard Stevens initiated an experiment in the town of Slough, (rhymes with cow) in the Berkshire section of England. The purpose of his project was to determine whether it might be possible to intentionally raise the happiness level of an entire community by promoting certain practices among the population. Fifty Sloughians volunteered to participate in the program that was three months in length.

They agreed to live in accordance with these 10 guidelines:

1. Plant and nurture something.
2. Count your blessings (at least five times a day).
3. Have at least one hour-long conversation with a loved one each week.
4. Phone a friend you've been out of touch with and meet up.
5. Have a tasty treat each day and take plenty of time to enjoy it.
6. Exercise for at least ½ hour at least three times per week.
7. Smile at and say hello to a stranger at least once a day.
8. Have a good laugh at least once a day.
9. Cut your TV viewing by at least 50 percent.
10. Do a good deed at least once a day.

Most people have been exposed to numerous books and magazine articles about happiness and positive psychology since these topics have become popularized in the media over the past couple of decades. Consequently they would probably say that there is little in these guidelines that could qualify as revelatory news to the general public. What is unique about the Making Slough Happy experiment is that it is the first (and so far the only) study of a community in which a significant number of participants have consistently engaged in practices over an extended period of time that have produced a significant increase in happiness levels.

Dr. Stevens and his assistants found that there was an overall increase of 33 percent in the happiness level of the participants in the study. In follow-up studies, they found that the vast majority of the study's participants continued to sustain these increased levels of happiness. The study also included some non-traditional practices not often found in self-help books, including tree hugging, dancing in supermarket aisles and something called "graveyard therapy." Other activities not unfamiliar to most Americans, but viewed as "weird" by many Brits, including hand-holding and hugging, were also encouraged and practiced. Participants reported that they not only got over their initial aversion to these behaviors, but actually came to enjoy them!

One of the goals of the experiment was to discover what the impact of the results would be on other members of the community who had not participated in the study, in the hopes of finding that the beneficial effects might also impact the lives of other citizens who did not directly engage in the project. There was, however, no noticeable improvement on the part of these people. This finding led the researchers to conclude that while each individual does have some influence on his or her experience of happiness, we each have to do our own work in order to reap the results and that the benefits of individual practices are not contagious to others.

At the beginning of the project, one of the researchers stated:

Our hope is that this will have a ripple effect -- that the volunteers will take their newfound skills and attitudes out into the community, and in this way we will begin to change the psychological climate of Slough.

While many of the volunteers did take their newfound skills out into the community, this did not create the hoped for ripple effect, affirming the widely held belief that "the program works if you work it".

One of the other conclusions the research team reached or affirmed is that material possessions and money don't raise your happiness level. Another is that according to the participants in the study, "the most important element in strengthening your happiness quotient is in the quality of your relationships with others." While having a loving long-term partnership with another person is unquestionably a deeply fulfilling experience, it is not a requirement for a having a high level of happiness in your own life, provided you do have fulfilling relationships with others.

It would be bit of an exaggeration to say that Slough has been transformed as a result of the Happiness Project, but there is no question that the lives of most of the participants will never be the same after their three month experience, which began ten years ago. The town itself, which had previously had the reputation as being bit, shall we say, "dour" is not the same as it was in 2005. And to paraphrase the words of one of the volunteers in the experiment, if it can happen in Slough, it can happen anywhere!